What’s In A Title?
Some years ago I thought about setting up a company to broker unknown world cinema to Hollywood, an exercise doomed to failure because of course Hollywood executives would simply have bypassed me to deal with companies direct. Hollywood has a long and illustrious history of using immigrant talent for its product, but their track record on remakes is awful. The thinking goes that audiences for popular films can’t handle subtitles and don’t care about other versions, so why not simply refilm the original and hide its source?
The diminishing returns from J-horror remakes certainly forced Hollywood studios to look elsewhere for their – or rather someone else’s – inspiration, so we had ‘The Strangers’, a remake of the French ‘Ils’, ‘Quarantine’, a remake of the Spanish ‘[Rec]’, ‘Funny Games’, the remake of er, ‘Funny Games’, and the remake of ‘The Orphanage’ that doesn’t seem to have happened.
And a new game emerged. Given that the original foreign-language versions of films are scheduled to open stateside despite having sold remake rights, some have been retitled in such a way that their plots are ruined. I can think of three recent films from Europe wrecked in this manner (for example, if you decide to watch ‘The Best Offer’ DO NOT look at its US title). The cynic in me thinks that if the original flops, the remake has a clear path.
Any writer will tell you that titles are hard. For me they either come easily and naturally (‘Paperboy’, ‘Hell Train’) or they have a convoluted history of getting renamed (‘Disturbia’, ‘Plastic’) and the renamed ones tend to do less well. I just read a much-hyped novel which I did not enjoy called ‘The Girl On The Train’, but it certainly delivered what it promised on the cover. The works of some conceptual artists exist as much in their titles as in the art itself.
Recently there were two new films concerning characters who discover they have a double living somewhere else in the city. Richard Oyoade’s version is called ‘The Double’, and is a funny, creepy take on this idea. Denis Villeneuve’s version, based on a book called ‘The Double’, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and actually kept me awake last night (especially thinking about the end shot) – but it’s been titled ‘Enemy’, the blandest and least appropriate title for the film.
Of course, some name changes work beautifully. ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ is better served as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘3000’ became ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘A Boy’s Life’ became ‘E.T.’ There are even some titles that appear to have no meaning, like ‘Reservoir Dogs’.
How on-the-nose should your title be? Sometimes I want to write a book called ‘Bad Man Taunts Cop’. Perhaps it’s an exercise we should conduct on all our books – come up with a title that explains the concept; ‘Old Cops Catch Murderer’ (Bryant & May), say, or ‘Non-Existent Place Helps Over-Imaginative Boy’ (‘Calabash’). I think the title ‘Gone Girl’ was brilliant – eight letters to describe a concept – wow. Any other examples?